Alias: Essendine

Posted on: January 12th, 2010 by Leonard Jacobs

Victor Garber transforms his genial self into the raffish, raging egomaniac Garry Essendine for
Present Laughter.

Victor Garber and Lisa Banes

Victor Garber and Lisa Banes

Anyone who knows actor Victor Garber would not characterize him as an immense—but ultimately lovable—narcissist like Garry Essendine, the aging matinee idol at the vortex of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter. Over a leisurely breakfast, Garber never fails to mention the other actors in Roundabout’s 2010 revival of the play on Broadway, almost all of whom performed in the acclaimed production at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company in 2007. Of Present Laughter’s director, Nicholas Martin, Garber’s voice grows louder and his praise becomes lavish. “He’s more fun than anyone I know,” he says, most sincerely. Garber’s enthusiasm makes you wish you were sitting in the rehearsal room—or standing on line at the theatre, a pair of center-orchestra seats in hand. Watch the video on youtube.

Present Laughter marks Garber’s 15th Broadway show—his first since creating the role of Serge in Yasmina Reza’s award-winning comedy Art in 1998. Though a four-time Tony nominee and veteran of hit productions (Arcadia, Damn Yankees, Lend Me a Tenor, Noises Off, Sweeney Todd, Deathtrap), a solid decade of TV and film work—from his Emmy-nominated role as Jack Bristow on ABC’s Alias to portraying George Moscone in the Oscar-winning Milk—conspired to keep him on the West Coast. Still, he’s kept his hand in the New York City theatre scene, appearing in the Encores! revivals of Of Thee I Sing and Follies, for example. Returning to Broadway at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre has him jazzed, no question about it. But returning to Broadway in a Noël Coward play—that, he says, has him ecstatic.

Rarely are actors given the chance to revisit roles or productions. Still, why Present Laughter, why Roundabout, and why now?

When we did the play for four weeks at the Huntington, it was one of the best experiences any of us ever had in our lives. It’s a great role for me; it’s also a great production. And it’s a great cast, too, and January will be a wonderful time for Roundabout audiences to come in and simply have a fun, lovely, joyous evening. So that, truly, is the motivation.

The production follows last season’s successful revival of Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Do you think that revival proved Coward is still a viable product for Broadway?

All I can tell you—and I mean this honestly—is any play is relevant if it’s well done and acted. It has been proven over and over again that Shakespeare is relevant, so why not Sir Noël Coward? To me, Noël was a genius—is a genius. In Boston, I hadn’t heard laughter like that since Noises Off. I mean, just uproarious. I also think just being entertained makes something relevant.

Do you consider Present Laughter a period play? Are you making technical adjustments to account for the era the play was written?

There’s a danger in that. The requirements of the play are, frankly, to do it. But yes, the world is very different now—and Present Laughter is a throwback to another time. What the play is really about—theatre, relationships, and middle age—is something most people can relate to.

So who, exactly, is Garry Essendine?

Victor Garber and Nancy E. Carroll

He’s a fragile character, with bravado and excesses. The role is a brilliant depiction of a man going through a midlife crisis, one that just happens to take place in the world of the theatre. I think mostly about being true to the circumstances: sometimes he overacts and sometimes he doesn’t. He’s accused of “acting” all throughout the play, and his retort, of course, is “I’m not acting.” As Victor Garber, the actor, I’m trying to approximate the truth of who he is and to tell the story of his life in this play.

Did you ever meet Noël Coward?

No—my gosh.

What would you ask him if you did?

Could we have dinner and talk about your life?

And talk about comedy?

It would depend. You know, there’s a great lesson here. Robert Moore was a great man and a great director and he directed me in They’re Playing Our Song. Well, I was so proud of myself to be getting laughs. One night he said, “You’re too focused on the laughs.” I was taken aback. Then I thought, you know, he’s right: I wasn’t focused on the story or on the character. Now, I’m a laugh whore: I’m very aware of the precision and artistry of laughter. That’s what intrigues me about comedy—having to make it look like you’re not being precise. And that’s what I do hope to achieve. But it has to happen organically. I don’t “trot it out,” and I don’t give it too much thought because if I do it becomes, “Okay, now how do I get that laugh again?” That’s a trap I want to avoid. I’m aware of laughs, I love laughs, and I think it’s very important to preserve them. But if you try to get them every time, it will drive you mad.

What’s your pre-performance process like? Where is your head, say, 30 minutes before curtain time?

My main concern is being healthy, to be warmed up vocally, to be warmed up physically, and to feel good. That’s my goal every day, anyway, acting or not. And I always look at the script.

For cues?

To reacquaint myself—like with the first scene, or to get myself back into the play. I have anxiety and I have stage fright sometimes before going on. I don’t like talking about it because I don’t like to tempt it.

I’m a little surprised you wouldn’t ask Coward about the play, come to think of it.

It’s not surprising, really, because I think Present Laughter is pretty self-explanatory. Whatever the deconstruction of the play—by that I mean, "Who were these people?" "What sex were they really?"—it means very little, because it makes no difference in terms of how I play it. Coward was a playwright. The play is a fiction based, as they say, on certain truths.

Leonard Jacobs is theatre critic for the New York Press and edits The Clyde Fitch Report, a blog about arts and politics.

Related Categories:
2009-2010 Season, Front & Center, Present Laughter

  1. Noel L. Silverman

    January 29, 2010

    There are lots of things wrong with this production, but the most egregious, it seems to me, is the performance of Brooks Ashmanskas. And for that, I blame Nicholas Martin, not Mr. A.

    His performance is so outlandish, so over-the-top that he makes everyone else on the stage look foolish. He just gets accepted, or tolerated – part of the scenery, almost – which makes everyone with whom he interacts seem stupid, or timid, or oblivious, for not reacting coherently to his inanities.

    And it isn’t funny, in the bargain. (Unless you think that Jerry Lewis is funny. Or Martin Short.) If it were funny, it’d simply be out of place. But it’s just painful to watch. And it takes the entire production with it.

  2. J. Minkoff

    February 20, 2010

    I saw the production this afternoon and I was transfixed by Brooks Ashmanskas’s performance. Now, I am not familiar with the play so it could be that I wouldn’t have the same reaction if I had another actor’s approach to the role in mind, but I didn’t think he made everyone else on stage look foolish — all the supporting characters are in one way or another outlandish: Miss Erikson, the spiritualist Swedish servant; Fred, the breezy valet; Daphne Stillington, the smitten would-be actress. And their peculiarities are accepted as perfectly normal, because Present Laughter is a _farce_. It is not David Mamet or Tom Stoppard or Patrick Marber. It is a farce, and anything goes. Anything that keeps the energy level up is allowed.



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